On Materialism and Heroism


familyEvery time our mailman knocks at the door, I know I can expect an update about his son’s medical school. He has two children and he, like everyone I know, rejoices in his son’s career success. It seems like his job as a father is complete because he got his son into college.

I Used to be Pro-Life

Before I got married, it was obvious to me that the more kids the better. Now that I actually started having them, I have to remind myself every day that it’s worth it. Wouldn’t I be happier if I could sleep at night or travel more? Wouldn’t we all be more comfortable, have more space and be able to provide more materially for our children if we didn’t have so many?

I made a little flow-chart to remind myself of what I’m doing here:

What attracts people/what is beautiful/what is worth it is the HEROIC (courage, overcoming adversity, etc)

Having lots of children not only is natural but is HEROIC

It is for the greater good of bringing more people into the world. For manifesting love.

Value Mercy Over Life

There is a verse in the hymn “America, the Beautiful” that says:

“O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!”

There are spiritual realities greater than our physical well-being, comfort, air-conditioning, pleasure in food, pleasure in travel, sleep at night, physical fitness, self and ultimately… life. This verse struck me as so counter-cultural in today’s culture. It seems no value, especially not country, is greater than our lives and well-being nowadays. Is martyrdom heroic to today’s culture? I would argue it is universally and timelessly attractive, but in today’s pleasure-obsessed culture the values that lead to laying down one’s life are flippantly dismissed. Nationalism is “close-minded” and God loves everyone, not just those “extremists” like the seaside martyrs in Scorsese’s Silence.

The World Promises Comfort

I heard a great homily on the recent feast day of St. Elizabeth of Portugal. She was a queen and people asked her, “Why do you submit yourself to so much penance? You could live a better life. You live in the court!”

The saints led contradictory lives. Their lives question us, puzzle us, attract us. “The saints surprise us, they confound us, because by their lives they urge us to abandon a dull and dreary mediocrity.” (Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, n.138)

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI it is not true that young people think only of consumerism and pleasure. It is not true that they are materialistic and self-centered. Just the opposite is true: young people want great things. They want an end to injustice. They want inequalities to be overcome and all peoples to have their share in the earth’s goods. They want freedom for the oppressed. They want great things, good things.”

There is something in us that makes us dream of magnanimity. Something even stronger than our survival instinct and our natural drive to take care or ourselves. There is something that pushes us out of ourselves and toward others. It is in the material realm, but not of the material realm.

My mailman is proud of his son almost having completed medical school. I get it, that’s important. But there are more important things. If he had a handicapped son who was unable to go to college, I hope he would be just as proud.

Be Heroic

I know of a couple who went into childbirth in such terrible material conditions, among livestock, that is was probably a safety issue. Their son lived with them until he was thirty and I don’t think he finished medical school. Instead of having an illustrious career, he hung around with a group of men, then died an ignoble, criminal death. Of course, this is the Holy Family… and the richest family of all.

So be heroic. Swim upstream. Sacrifice those “gods” of our culture of comfort and well-being for the sake of liberating strife. Why so much penance, Saint Elizabeth of Portugal? For that invisible love that moves us all.

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